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Ethical implications of defense funding in social science

March 22, 2023

Since World War I, defense funding has been a driver of social science’s growth. The dense ties between social science and defense agencies benefitted social research but also attracted decades of heavy criticism. This long and entangled history has important implications for the future of research designed to benefit scholarship, national security, and global welfare.

In a new article, “Politics & Ethics in the Mobilization of Social Science for National Security,” Joy Rohde argues that future Defense research programs must contend with this complicated past.

“Honest reckoning with that relationship (between social scientists and defense officials) requires a broad and deep contextual analysis that situates it in a broad field of contested moral values and political relationships,” she writes. “Any future collaboration between social science and national security agencies demands deliberate, systematic, and ongoing accounting for the potential harms—to social science, to the U.S. state, and to the targets of American interventions abroad—that it may produce.”

Funding from the military led social sciences related to global affairs to “militarize.” For example, by the 1960s, Defense funded social scientists stopped asking how to achieve peace, but instead what the next war would look like.

Despite beliefs that military-funded research was neutral and objective, some projects debunked those claims. Specifically, the Army-funded Project Camelot, which studied the causes of political instability and revolution in Latin America, raised questions.

“The Camelot episode thrust to the forefront long-standing political and ethical concerns about military-funded social science’s claim to provide objective, politically neutral expertise,” Rohde explains. “What seemed neutral or beneficent from the micro-scale of a single research study was, at the macro-scale of American and global politics, a manifestation of a contested national security project that had material consequences for sovereign nations.”

With Camelot and other projects in mind, Rohde clarifies what the future of using social science to improve national security should look like.

“The lesson of history is that the epistemic, political, and ethical challenges posed by national security agency funding (and indeed, any funding) are most appropriately engaged at the macro-scale,” she writes. “Only from the macro-scale can researchers, patrons, and publics engage honestly and robustly with the closely intertwined and fundamentally value-laden nature of scholarship and the policy concerns that animate it.”

Rohde says there are two ways forward in this area: either creating and maintaining robust international affairs research funding from non-securitized perspectives, or deliberate and ongoing conversation among scholars, patrons, and the public about the trade-offs posed by the mobilization of expertise in national security. 

Read the entirety of the article in Defense Policy & Posture.